When a society is organized around the idea that one group of people is inherently better than another, it goes without saying that injustice and unnecessary suffering will be the main result, with patriarchy and male privilege being the oldest living xample.
Gender inequality is everywhere, from who cleans the house and takes care of the kids to politics, work, religion, and science, to the epidemic of men’s violence against women in the military and everywhere else.
I’ve been paying attention to this for a long time, and have noticed some strange things about how it works. Perhaps the strangest is how systems of privilege manage to keep going while at the same time being based on complete fictions about who we are.
Men are not better than women and never have been. Take almost any human capability and map it across all kinds of social situations and what you will find is that distributions for women and men overlap so much that differences among men and among women are far greater than differences between the two.
But still most people hold to the idea that men and women are fundamentally and inherently different, with men being superior. I can see how this would happen with all the cultural messaging that starts from the moment we are born. If we believe women and men are inherently different, it’s because it’s what we’ve always been told, and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” encourages us to pay attention only to things that support what we already believe. I get that. I can see it in myself. But then there are things that are stranger still because we know they aren’t rue even as we act as though they are. I am referring, of course, to the practice of calling women “guys.”
It is everywhere, by which I mean everywhere, not only in mixed-gender groups, but groups of all women. If you object, you’ll be told that “guy” is just another word for “human being,” which, quite clearly, it is given how it’s used by just about everyone and all the time. Except that it’s also not, and we know it, which is where living in unreality comes in, the thing about privilege that is, frankly, a little nuts.
- Thought experiment #1: Imagine a room full of men and women. Someone stands at the front and says, “I want all the guys to stand up.” What happens next?
- Thought experiment #2: You are with a woman. You tell her you think she’s such a guy, a great guy, the smartest guy you’ve ever known. Note the expression on her face.
- Thought experiment #3: You turn on cable news and the first thing you hear is someone say, “Everyone knows it’s a guy’s world.” Picture in your mind what he’s trying to say.
A woman is not a guy and everyone knows it. Using the word to refer to human beings comes of making men the standard, the only reason for which is to reinforce the idea that men are superior to women because they are the human beings. There is no comparable word for women that can be used to include men, because women are not the standard. In a patriarchal culture, they are something less than that. A lot less. It is a powerful bit of cultural sleight-of-hand that pulls this off so routinely that it doesn’t occur to people what a crazy thing they’re doing or the damage that it does, this simple, automatic business of calling women guys. If we could hear ourselves, we’d be embarrassed. It is nothing less, really, than calling women men, which, come to think of it, makes about as much sense.
“Man,” after all, is just another word for human being, is it not? Mankind, the family of man, man’s best friend, man overboard, man-hours, man-made, man the phones, man-eating, manhunt, manslaughter, manhandle, man’s inhumanity to man. So, why not call a woman a man, as in, “Hey, man, what’s up?” Is she not a human being who can have a dog or fall off the ship or knit a sweater or answer the phone or be killed without cause or hunted down by the cops and roughed up when she’s caught? Can she not be cruel to other human beings? Does she not deserve to be included in the family of man?
You can’t get away with calling a woman “man” because the lie is too plain and hard to miss, whereas “guy” seems a little more vague and unspecific. But it doesn’t take much to how it’s really not. A guy is a man is a guy.
We owe it to ourselves, not to mention one another and our children, to take responsibility for acting as if we really know what we know. It may not be easy to undo what we’ve been taught, and people are unlikely to thank us for it. But we can do it. We are human beings, after all.
Voice Male contributing editor Allan Johnson is a novelist (The First Thing and the Last), and a nonfiction writer. A new edition of his book The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy will be published later this year.